Cutting through the bullshit.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

'If I only had a brain'

In case you were wondering what on earth could motivate the campaign to subject Israel to boycott, sanctions, and disinvestment (BDS), the answer has finally arrived. The American Jewish Committee (AJC) has just released a pamphlet by their associate director of the Department on Anti-Semitism and Extremism, Ben Cohen, that promises to reveal ‘The Ideological Foundations of the Boycott Campaign Against Israel’.

What needs to be interrogated,’ Cohen asserts, ‘therefore, is the set of ideas that underlie the boycott movement as well as their appeal, both actual and potential…’

…In opposing the existence of a Jewish state, the boycott movement remains faithful to the long-held opposition of many left-wing ideologues toward Jews asserting themselves as an identifiable, autonomous collective.

Who are these left wing ideologues? Plenty of socialists find identity politics – political activity that places identity as a member of a group defined by ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, and so forth – a distraction from the class struggle that can eradicate the economic conditions that foster oppression. We don’t oppose Jews asserting themselves as an identifiable, autonomous collective any more than we oppose anyone clinging to any other self defeating illusions.

I was also surprised to read that the BDS movement opposes the existence of a Jewish state. Plenty of antiZionists are involved in the movement, but from what I’ve read, the vast bulk of the movement explicitly supports the existence of a Jewish state bounded to the east by the Green Line. It’s not until the very last paragraph of the pamphlet, where he reemphasises ‘the fundamental aim of the boycott movement: not the withdrawal of Israel to the 1967 lines, but its dissolution as a sovereign state’, that Cohen finally reveals, ‘…this is not to suggest that every person who advocates a boycott of Israel necessarily supports this goal’.

Unbeknownst to actual participants in the movement, who overwhelmingly derive their inspiration from the movement against South African apartheid,

In advocating the economic, cultural, and political isolation of Israel, the boycott movement borrows from multiple historical legacies, notably the state policy of anti-Semitism, formally presented as anti-Zionism, practiced in the Soviet Union

The apartheid parallel is not lost on Ben Cohen,

Finally, in demonizing Israel by comparing it with the former apartheid regime in South Africa—a grave deceit that is a core concern of this paper—the boycott movement seeks to force Israel to abandon, internally, its Jewish character and, externally, its sovereignty.

The last time I checked, the movement that culminated in the 1994 end of South Africa’s coveted white character had not in fact compromised its sovereignty, nor was that ever one of its objectives.

The campaign for BDS has enjoyed some encouraging successes in raising the issues in Britain in the last few months. Union debate on the issues is particularly welcome. BDS on their own, however, will not reverse the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza any more than 35 years of sanctions ended apartheid. Much less end the racist scourge of Zionism.

It is cynical ahistoricism to draw an analogy between South Africa and Israel.

when applied to Israel, the analogy is, at best, a careless and hasty attempt to graft the structure of one state onto another, simply because tensions and divisions over citizenship, land use, and access to services are a fact of life in Israel (as they are in other multiethnic societies). At worst, it represents the transformation of the word “apartheid” into a sheer pejorative term, removed from its southern African context and stripped of its close historical linkage with Afrikaner nationalism.

Just like the Holocaust was absolutely unique and to call anything removed from its northern European context and stripped of its close historical linkages with German nationalism transforms ‘genocide’ into a sheer pejorative term. Just like the American Revolution was unique and it’s a distortion and a travesty to call any other historical event ‘revolution’. Little could be more obvious than that if it’s not in southern Africa and linked to Afrikaner nationalism, it can’t even resemble apartheid.

To underscore the fundamental differences, Cohen writes,

Devised in the 1940s, the concept of ‘transfer’, removal of the indigenous Palestinians, was intrinsic to the racist culture of the Zionist regime and its prescription of separate (and unequal) development for different ethnic groups. By the 1970s the poverty-stricken territories were home to nearly four million Palestinians, many of whom were forcibly deported and deprived of citizenship in the new state, or any nationality at all. Starved of resources and entirely dependent on the Israeli regime (which controlled everything entering or leaving the West bank and Gaza, including foreign aid), a ‘Palestinian state’ was nonetheless touted as a permanent solution for Israel’s ‘demographic time bomb’. By transferring the Palestinian population in its entirety to the Palestinian state, the architects of the settlements intended to make sure that pressure for majority rule never reached critical mass.

Just kidding. This is what he really wrote:

Devised in the 1940s, the concept of the bantustans, separate “homelands” for blacks, was intrinsic to the racist culture of the apartheid regime and its prescription of separate (and unequal) development for different racial groups. By the 1970s the poverty-stricken bantustans were home to nearly four million blacks, many of whom were forcibly deported and deprived of their South African citizenship. Starved of resources and entirely dependent on the apartheid regime (since the absence of international recognition meant that international aid was not available), the bantustans were nonetheless touted as a permanent solution for South Africa’s black population. By transferring the black population in its entirety to the bantustans, the architects of apartheid intended to make sure that pressure for majority rule never reached critical mass.

There are real differences between the South African and Israeli versions of settler colonialism, which I’ve discussed elsewhere. In a nutshell, where the South African economy relied crucially on the labour of the enormous Black majority, Zionism has for much of its history aspired to replace indigenous Palestinian labour with ‘Hebrew labour’. The original Bantustans were a fiction erected specifically to deprive the colonised of political rights within ‘South Africa proper’. In this respect, at any rate, the creation of a ‘sovereign’ Palestinian state would actually enhance the resemblance with the South African paradigm. It seems obvious that even an optimal Palestinian state that incorporates the whole of Gaza and the West Bank, including annexed East Jerusalem, even in the unlikely scenario that the corridor between the two enclaves could be secured from Israeli interference, would have a tenuous claim to economic or political viability. But as the settlement grid expands and consolidates, as the wall inexorably corrals the West Bank Palestinians into four or more isolated ghettoes, as the leader of the free world gives his imprimatur to Israel’s eventual annexation of the ‘already existing major Israeli populations centers’, the shape of the future Palestine becomes clearer and clearer.

Cohen finds it ‘supremely ironic’ that

…those who insist that Zionism represents a surrender to anti-Semitism, who go on to claim that anti-Semitism is simply a rhetorical trick to muzzle criticism of the State of Israel, who grudgingly concede that Jewish identity may have, after all, a valid religious component, but stringently reject anything beyond that—present their approach as the key to making Jewish communities secure. From a Jewish perspective, such a position is transparently dishonest.

It just so happens that I am among ‘those who insist that Zionism represents a surrender to anti-Semitism’, so I might have something to say about these other accusations he’s leveling at me. Clearly, what he intended to write must have been that we claim specifically accusations of anti-Semitism are the rhetorical trick, not anti-Semitism per se. In many cases, those making the accusations may really believe that criticism of Israelii policy is anti-Semitic, but the vast majority are simply slurs, and often enough, as in Cohen’s case, part of a deliberate policy of trying to undermine criticism by tarring it with the ‘anti-Semite’ brush. But that is a very far cry from a claim that they are ‘simply a rhetorical trick to muzzle criticism of the State of Israel’. Anti-Semitism has a long history and there really are anti-Semitic incidents, including in Israel itself.

To say that Jewish identity has ‘a valid religious component’ is not the same thing as to say that some Jews derive our ethnic identity from participation in the community that engages in Jewish religious practices. The latter is transparently the case. But no, my Jewish identity has no religious component. Like any other form of identity politics, Jewish identity is a response to racism. Even when the oppressed embrace their own ethnic or ‘racial’ identity, it’s the racists who define the race by biologising whatever ad hoc racial markers they prefer to apply - appearance, cultural practice, surname… What makes me a Jew is that anti-Semites consider me a Jew. The Nazis’ racist 1935 Nuremburg Laws, prescribe that ‘A Jew is an individual who is descended from at least three grandparents who were, racially, full Jews...’ and ‘Full-blooded Jewish grandparents are those who belonged to the Jewish religious community.’ I also meet the definition in the racist 1970 amendment to the Law of return: ‘For the purposes of this Law, "Jew" means a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion.’ Above all, though, I’m a Jew because people like Ben Cohen, and the AJC, and the State of Israel purport to represent my interests and speak for me, as evidenced when he presumes to enunciate the ‘Jewish perspective’. So, no, I don’t ‘stringently reject anything beyond’ religious observance as a marker of Jewish identity.

Cohen reveals a great deal about his agenda when he claims that people like me ‘present their approach as the key to making Jewish communities secure’. It’s true that I have made the point from time to time that Israel is in reality the most dangerous place on the planet to be a Jew. The chance of falling victim to a misguided act of Palestinian resistance is obviously highest in Israel. Incidents of Nazi violence against Jews are probably as frequent in Israel as in France. A third of Jewish children in Israel, the charities all tell me, go to bed hungry. Tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors live in poverty. And I agree that the existence of the Jewish ethnocracy in Palestine conspires with the insistence of the State of Israel and the Zionist ideologues that Israel’s actions represent the interests of all Jews to provide the most significant pretext for modern anti-Semitic sentiments and violence. But while the end of the Zionist project would almost certainly have the effect of making Jewish communities more secure, that is not the principal concern, which is to reject racism and to achieve justice for the Palestinians, without which there can be no meaningful peace. But Cohen can’t even imagine an agenda other than his own obsession with securing Jewish communities. In fact, he excoriates Rosa Luxemburg for writing,

“Why do you come to me with your special Jewish sorrows? I feel just as sorry for the wretched Indian victims in Putumayo, the Negroes in Africa.... I cannot find a special corner in my heart for the ghetto.”

Clearly, from his perspective, the ‘Jewish perspective’, to neglect to privilege Jewish security over all others is anti-Semitic. It’s simply bizarre that Zionists can accuse their mildest critics of singling out Israel when they are the ones who vehemently insist that Israel and Jews never be held to the same standards as anyone else. It’s a stunning propaganda triumph for the Hasbara establishment to get away with it.

If the AJC can pass off stuff like,

[Israel’s dissolution as a sovereign state] is the goal of those who have created the boycott movement and who set its agenda and priorities. It is a goal that is consistent with the broad trajectory described here, which sees in the persistence of Jews and Jewish identity an abnormality and which seeks to eradicate the foundations— territorial, cultural, political—for a conscious, self-defining Jewish existence in Israel and the Diaspora.

and the rest of Cohen’s legion of straw men, the Hasbarists will have further cause to celebrate.


  1. A stunning return Ernie. Glad to see you're back.

  2. Thanks, Pauly. I'm delighted you liked my post. I never actually left the blogosphere, although I have relocated geograpically. It's just that I've slowed down a great deal.